Elvis & Nixon (2016) Film Review from the 15th Annual Tribeca Film Festival, a movie directed by Liza Johnson, starring Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Johnny Knoxville, Tate Donovan, and Sky Ferreira.
I suppose the first thing I should point out is that Elvis & Nixon was not about Elvis/ Nixon – it was about that one, iconic meeting between the two. More importantly, it was about some of the satellites who were perpetually in the orbit of these two figures, and what it meant (and took) for them to get that meeting to take place.
Kevin Spacey seemed more comfortable playing Nixon than any other actor I can recall in the role, which was sort of unnerving. Was he just that good, were previous efforts too much caricature, or was my sense for the historical figure just that askew? Whichever the case, however you feel about Nixon (or Spacey), he was presented as more of a person than an icon. A person who may have believed himself worthy of icon status, however, which presented as much crisis for a pair of staffers, Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) & Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), as opportunity.
On the other end of the constellation, Michael Shannon seemed to downplay Elvis’ persona – portraying him as a man certainly caught up in his own legend; but not so far gone as to not see some of its more absurd aspects (exemplified by a scene where he is confronted by a pair of Elvis impersonators). Shannon also emphasised the patriotic zeal, with which Elvis pursued this audience with the President – a zeal that would divergent personal problems for his trusted friend & go-to-guy, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer).
Much of the film is devoted to these peripheral figures – Schilling, in particular – and Pettyfer was certainly up to the task of carrying the film. His personal burdens, in the wake of super celebrity, not only gave us a reason to keep watching, between celebrity moments, but also provided Shannon with a point of focus for his own humanizing moments. Since we already knew how their mission would end, the potential cost for Pettyfer’s character, personally, provided the film with much of its conflict & suspense. Hanks, on the other hand, did good in the much less demanding role of the spectator – seemingly standing in for an audience faced with some of the absurdities to not just Presidential power, but Presidential power in the hands of Richard Nixon.
Some of the historic figures’ more infamous tidbits were alluded to; but inasmuch as the figures, themselves, may have regarded them. Spacey’s Nixon displayed much of the figure’s supposed contempt for whole sections of humanity, while Shannon’s Elvis handled his relationship with the Black community with a degree of street-wise grace. I’d like to think that Elvis would’ve actually cared to go to such lengths, to earn the respect of his detractors; but even if that were never the case, it was one of many signature moments (with the respective handlers just trying to keep up), leading up to the big one.
Even after all of these moments, the definitive moment lived up to expectations. Elvis’ boldness was matched by Nixon’s hospitality, as each played to the other until they began to play off of each other. Watching their duel slowly turn into a duet made Krogh’s efforts, to stick to script, that much funnier; but the initial reactions of Spacey’s Nixon, during the ice-breaker (both to the duel, and to the duet), were highlights.
Somewhere between what we’ve come to expect, from the titular figures, and the evolution of the figures on screen, the interaction of the two made for some relatably human WTF moments.
As much of that humanity came from the actors, themselves, it would be hard for me to claim that the pair disappeared into their respective roles. Spacey was Spacey, and Shannon was Shannon; but this was where a heartfelt conversation, between Elvis & Jerry, made all the difference.
For all the apparent truth to the duality of the man & the thing that was Elvis, the figure on screen was asking the viewer to look past the figure presented, to the essence beyond.
A similar conversation, between Nixon & Krogh (it was more of a Nixon monologue, really), made a similar case for Nixon – setting the stage for a meeting of equals, despite Nixon’s belief that such parity simply wasn’t possible.
The film suggested a self-pity to each man, serving to drive them in their pursuit of power, respect, and, ultimately, acceptance. In simplest, terms, Elvis didn’t just want to be regarded as a “full grown man,” but as a man who made a real difference to the only thing greater than himself (on the mortal coil, anyway): his country. I won’t go into the politics of that one. Nixon, of course, had a long reported persecution complex behind his own conviction: that a nation as great as the U.S.A. deserved Richard Nixon. I won’t go into the politics of that one, either. I will say, however, that whatever the truth may be, regarding the personal natures of each man, the characters presented as them made for a truly cathartic moment, when the ‘moment’ finally arrived.
Regardless of what might think of either figure, there was something both epic & touching about watching the two make contact. Epic, in that each approached the meeting as ‘the most powerful man on Earth,’ with nothing short of the country’s future at stake; touching, in that… well, (insert either name here) met a genuine peer, and made a new friend. It almost made me want to freeze that moment, and forget the history of their futures.
Knowing (and being reminded of) that history was what made the outcome bittersweet, once it was presented as something other than just a crossing of politics & egos.
So the moment was successful depicted as momentous – even if only vicariously, through the eyes of the principals – but Elvis & Nixon remained the backdrop for a story about the shoulders that such men stand on. Regardless of our regards for the its namesakes, and their respective fates, we’ll always have simple pleasure of the ‘other guys’ doing right by their bosses, and Jerry getting to do right, in his own right.
I’d wave a pair of victory signs for that.
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